If you build it, they will pay. Or so the architects thought.
Government is fondly seen by architects as a source of sizable and reliable, if often unglamorous, work. In a recession, a contract for a public school, library or community center could sustain a small firm for months – or so said industry lore.
In post-Katrina New Orleans, many in the field anticipated a taxpayer-funded building boom and hired accordingly, recruiting professionals from across the country. Yet as the process of rebuilding city properties moves toward its fifth year, companies are questioning the benefit of the public building contracts they once so eagerly anticipated.
“These contracts have been really frustrating for a lot of architects,” Melissa Urcan, the executive director of the New Orleans chapter of the American Institute of Architects said in an interview this week. One major problem is getting paid. “Everyone I’ve talked to who has city contracts has trouble collecting payment on time. People are waiting more than 180 days for checks. They can’t pay their bills. They can’t grow.”
One of these companies-in-waiting is Billes Architecture.
In May 2009, Billes completed a site plan for a new community center in the Carrollton neighborhood and sent an invoice to the city for $172, 801The industry standard for payment is 30 days, meaning that Billes expected to have a check in hand by July, at the latest. Yet more than six months later, the company has yet to collect a dime for the plan, a thick bound book now sitting on a shelf in City Hall.
“Our small business, like others in the city, simply can’t afford to do business this way,” director of business development Kenneth Burrell said in an e-mail sent to the City Council early this month.
Urcan said that unless New Orleans streamlines its contracting and building process, companies will continue to struggle.
In particular, Urcan said that the contracting of project oversight to a private company, MWH, is creating an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, slowing progress and costing the city money.
“Instead of having the city’s own workforce manage these projects, they have this outsourced contractor who slows down the process and acts as a middleman between the architect and the client,” said Urcan, who previously worked in the administration of Chicago mayor Richard Daley. In Chicago, she says, projects moved faster without that layer.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin hired MWH to manage recovery projects in January 2008.
It was not the international engineering company’s first job in New Orleans. Since the1970s, the company had managed Sewerage & Water Board projects, billing the city as much as $10 million a year, contracts now the subject of an investigation by Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux.
“We know that this amount of work is unprecedented, and that’s why we’re bringing some outside help in,” Nagin said during a City Hall briefing announcing the company’s new role in the recovery, according to The Times-Picayune.
At that time, the contract to coordinate the work of architects, engineers and building contractors hired by the city to rebuild Katrina-damaged facilities was worth about $6 million, according to the TP report. However, costs for large construction projects generally tend to exceed initial expectations.
In pre-Katrina New Orleans, architects managed their own projects with oversight by civil servant architects working in the Department of Capital Projects or Public Works. The city did not pay for the costlier private-sector consultants now doing the job.
Urcan represents a membership of 452 architects in the region. The concerns about the way the recovery is being administered are so deep that the association has created a committee focusing on the issue and hired an attorney to help them lobby City Hall on their behalf.
The organization has a presentation that explains their perspective on why it is taking so long to rebuild the city.
After making their presentation to the Nagin administration and seeing no changes, Urcan says the association is simply holding onto its invoices until Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu steps up.
“What’s happening now is not normal or healthy for anyone,” she said. “We are doing what we can to let the next administration know how to improve the situation.”